Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”

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Passion and/or Palm Sunday?

Palm Sunday is a mixed up day for the church. We know the rest of the story too well and want to get there too quickly. We know the following Sunday is Easter and there are anticipatory smiles all around. We want a taste of that joy on Palm Sunday, too, as if to soften the gruesome events of Holy Week. We even call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” when it was anything but good for Jesus.

Our rushing the week to an early happy conclusion by celebrating Palm Sunday with such gusto is indicative of our culture’s enthrallment with happy endings. But if we don’t speak on Palm Sunday about what Jesus went through then the only opportunities left are Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae services, which are usually not well-attended. What a disservice and underestimation of the depth of Christ’s love and pain.

Our desire for a “good outcome” and selfish “me-ism” trumps an adequate appreciation of what we’re really commemorating. We jump from high point to high point and skip the horrible events of mid-week. Doing so, to me, is too much in tune with Satan’s challenge for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. That was as if the devil was saying to him, “Bypass all that suffering, Jesus. Here’s a shortcut. Show them who you are and you won’t have to die.”

Who wouldn’t want a shortcut or bypass suffering? I know that I resemble that remark! For instance, I want to know ahead of time if a movie concludes well; i.e., has a “happy ending.” Life is difficult enough. I don’t want to see a movie that’s a downer. I need a lift, and desire entertainment. Therefore, I’m not much on watching anything sad or tear-jerky. I recently watched a rerun of Nicholas Sparks’ movie, “Nights in Rodanthe,” and it was a bummer and I am cured from being a fan of the sad and sappy genre.

Is this a universal desire to skip the sad and welcome the glad? Is this why we focus on the children waving palm branches and giving Jesus the Red Carpet Treatment, rather than castigate the throng who begged for Jesus’ death later in the week? Do we prove our aversion to pain by our preference in calling the day “Palm Sunday,” rather than “Passion Sunday,” or the phrase “Holy Week” over “Passion Week?” The word “passion” derives from the Latin “passio” which means “to suffer.” No wonder we don’t use it very much, or have changed its meaning to something steamy and erotic.

Here’s the rub. Changing the name and the emphasis doesn’t change the facts. Jesus suffered. If we rush over Jesus’ sufferings and go from one little Easter (Palm Sunday) to the real Easter, then we’ve missed the point of the Incarnation. Jesus, God-In-The-Flesh, came and suffered with us, for us, to save us from trying to save ourselves through entertainment or attainment. Nothing we do to inoculate ourselves from the world or evil’s consequences will work. It’s all been attempted and failed miserably. God comes to us and allows Himself to be subjected to the worst in humanity to restore us to the best selves humanity can ever imagine.

Therefore, don’t rush from mountaintop to mountaintop this coming week without pausing in the valley of the shadow of death. It is in the valley that God does what God does best. There in the trenches where you and I struggle with personal sin, fears about health, finances, or relationships is where we see Jesus at His best. In the midst of Holy Week, He struggled with whether or not He would take up the cross. He dealt with the betrayal of two of his disciples and the desertion of all the rest. He agonized in pain from the scourging that He received, and suffered a death the likes we have never imagined.

It is in the valley that Jesus lets me know full well all of that from which I can be redeemed. If I rush from Palm Sunday’s parade to Easter’s glory, I might miss that. My solemn promise is to attempt to walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus so that I might relish even more the victory that He’s won. I hope that we all have a blessed Passion Sunday and a solemn Passion Week.

 

PALM SUNDAY and HOLY WEEK

Palm Sunday is fast approaching and makes me feel personal and cosmic pain every year. The personal pain is obvious. I know all too well how easy it is for me to pledge complete allegiance to Christ and then turn away. I am the ever faithful, ever fickle disciple who continually stands amazed at God’s love for us Palm Sunday heralds who quickly become Good Friday hecklers. Was Aesop right in the moral of his “Fox and Lion” fable?  The often quoted moral of the story is that, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Familiarity, however, doesn’t breed contempt in all situations. The more that I know someone or some subject matter the more enthralled I am. For instance, one of the attractions of having a devotional life is so that I can know God better. It’s not about gaining a degree of familiarity that permits me to trade intimacy with God for the passing fancy of sin. It is the opposite. I want to know God better so that I don’t want to stray. It underscores my highest desire of closeness to God. I daresay it is the same in our more mundane relationships. We don’t hang out with friends and spouses so that we can have an excuse for philandering. Familiarity breeds passion, loyalty, sacrifice, and love rather than contempt, right?

Or does time together produce both faithfulness and contempt? Yes, the fact of the matter is that the people we know best are the very persons we hurt the most. Domestic violence is horrible proof of the contempt that can spring from callous familiarity. We often take advantage of the weaknesses of those with whom we are most familiar, and we exploit and expose them for our own selfish purposes. This is no excuse, however, to promote staying at arm’s distance from our significant others, yo-yoing back and forth from closeness to chaos to make-up physical intimacy. There’s something that just isn’t right about this weird pattern.

There’s something not right with Passion Week’s flip-flopping either. How can we go so easily from blessing Jesus to betraying Jesus? If I know Jesus better, shouldn’t that prevent my infidelity, or does it create the possibility of deeper contempt? Is this especially true when I feel that I have been faithful yet God seems to have forgotten me? I am most disappointed in God when I think of the ways that I have been unjustly wronged, punished without reason, or overlooked by those for whom I have sacrificed. I wallow in questions of “Why?” when pain knocks at my door, and I am most disturbed by the absence of God when my children are enduring the brunt of a cruel world. My selfish desires demand a God who answers my doubts and disappointments. Instead of greater faith via familiarity, I choose to ignore or even betray this God who ever calls my name.

Maybe that’s the problem. On Palm Sunday Jesus doesn’t just ride to the gates of Jerusalem, He also rides to the gate of my heart. He has been rapping on its door until His knuckles are raw. The sounds of my own complaints have drowned out the persistent presence of God, but He goes on standing there, gently knocking away. My shunning of His overtures is cruel domestic violence against the greatest lover of my soul. My selfishness falsely trumps the pain of the one to whom I have betrothed my very soul. I have forgotten the profundity that love isn’t about what I get out of a relationship, but what I give to the person of my affections. If I don’t care enough to put the other first, I will always turn familiarity into contempt. If I put the other first then I will always be surprised by how much I don’t know, and be drawn to an ever-deepening pursuit of true intimacy with the other.

My pledge during this all important week-before-Holy Week is to measure my love of Christ and fan the flame of desire for God. I want to know God with more familiarity, this God in Jesus who desperately pursues me every day. I hear Him knocking.

Holy Week and Defining Moments

Some things just aren’t forgotten. Certain events, situations, or circumstances have such an impact on us that they are cosmic in scope. They become defining moments for us as individuals and as societies. These events are HUGE! These events become defining moments precisely because they hit each of us in personal visceral way. They may have affected everybody, but we know exactly where we were when they happened. Some of these events would have to include: Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression; the attack on Pearl Harbor that awakened the US to WWII; the bombing of Nagasaki that ended WWII but started nuclear anxiety; the assassination of JFK; the Shuttle explosions; Columbine; and, of course, 9/11.

Personal reaction is certainly a factor in measuring the scope of a disaster, but what makes the difference between a national crisis and something that isn’t is in the way the crisis transcends ethnicity and personal agendas. Crimes against humanity affect everyone. It should bother us all that the Holocaust happened and that racism still hounds people of color. Shouldn’t MLK’s death be included in the list of defining moments? Sensitivity to an event’s ripple effect makes one painfully aware that some things have not been taken as seriously as others.

For instance, Columbus Day celebrations for Italians mean something quite different to Native Americans. Defining moments for Native peoples might include the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph’s capture, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacres at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and February 28, 1973. The most infamous atrocity against Native Americans for United Methodists is the Sand Creek Massacre led by former Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, on November 29, 1864.

So how do defining moments for Native Americans and others take on a larger cosmic dimension? There are some things that seem to affect only a few people but nonetheless are a crime against all of us. Is this awareness what separates a mere tragedy from a national or world tragedy? What makes for a defining moment is wrapped up in the extent of the event’s shock waves. In other words, if enough people feel the pain, we all feel it to a certain degree. Everybody, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, feels gut-punched when something like this happens. The broad emotional scope of certain events typically cuts across societal boundaries.

You may have seen the videotape done by the two brothers from France as the World Trade Center attack was unfolding. As the camera was moving down the street toward the tower complex did you notice the kaleidoscope of humanity? Different languages, different races, and different nationalities were united in fear and confusion. The war on terrorism reminds me of the movie, “Independence Day,” a patriotic sci-fi flick about all humanity, led, of course, by the USA, to seek common survival against extraterrestrial foes. It is chock full of the personal and cosmic dimensions of both pain and heroism.

True defining moments are both personal and cosmic. They dictate a personal and a common response. If individuals shirked their duty there would be no national or international resolve. Defining moments begin with individuals before they become group-think. If there were no brave individuals like Clarke Bynum fighting off a would-be hijacker, New York firefighters, or Flight 93 heroes willing to say, “Let’s roll!” then the world wouldn’t be as galvanized as it is against terrorism. Individuals cement common resolve that hopefully will expand last year’s Arab Spring to Syria, etc.

Palm Sunday was a solemn defining moment for fickle crowds that erupted into terrible cosmic consequences and the second most cosmic-impacting event happened on Good Friday, a day that was good for everyone but Jesus. The foremost defining moment, of course, is Easter! The disciples had to individually believe that Jesus was alive before Christianity had a chance to become a cosmos changing movement. Each of their individual defining moments snowballed into a salvific plan for the universe. My hope for Holy Week is that we will be so changed personally by Christ that the cosmos will yet feel its powerful impact. May this week be the defining moment for one and all!

From Great to Hate

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The historic legislation about healthcare passed this week and the fall-out has started en masse. I am appalled at the news of broken windows and hate mail and other negative forms of communication that legislators have received. Everybody wants to be liked, but sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing. As I think about appointing clergy it has occurred to me that friendships can be strained because the Cabinet has tried to look at the big picture and then it bites some of our colleagues and friends in a personal way. Being on the Cabinet can make for friends you never thought you would have, and make trouble for those with whom you have had a relationship for years. Sure, we would love accolades for doing for what we have thought to be in the best interest of all, but no one can please everybody in a connectional system. It takes faith that the Cabinet has prayed and looked over the landscape of the entire annual conference and has done the very best it can.
Of course, the scenarios from healthcare to appointment-making cause me to think about Jesus’ last week, from accolades to cruxifixon. Gloria Swanson was one of Hollywood’s top actresses from the 1920s to the 1950s. She was very ambitious. Early in her career, Swanson was quoted as saying, “I have gone through enough of being a nobody. I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gate man to the highest executive will know it.” And Swanson made sure of that. Before returning from a trip to France, Gloria Swanson sent a telegram to her film studio informing them that she expected a grand welcome when she arrived in California. In the telegram she demanded that the studio have enough well-wishers on hand to give her a standing ovation when she got out of her car in Hollywood. An ovation was duly arranged.

Palm Sunday is when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the events surrounding His Passion. Jesus didn’t have to arrange his own ovation when he entered Jerusalem. Word about Jesus had spread throughout the countryside. Jesus had healed many. He had taught with authority using parables that both anyone could understand and yet they confounded the wise. He spoke of love and lived grace to rich and poor alike. He had become quite a celebrity when Palm Sunday arrived.

Unfortunately, He had become too much of a celebrity to suit the Jerusalem fat cats. So even as the crowd waved its palm branches in adulation, the shadows of the cross loomed in the background. Have you ever felt wrongly persecuted when you’ve done everything right that you know to do? And there’s only one thing more disappointing than having crowds of strangers turn on you when you’re innocent. After all, crowds are fickle. The worst thing is when your friends and family let you down.

That’s when it’s really tough to keep loving people. I don’t know about you, but when I feel betrayed, my first inclination is to cut my losses and move on. Who wants to “throw their pearls before swine?” The answer is, “Nobody,” right? But when we look at Jesus’ last week we see a loving Lord who washes his denying betraying disciples’ feet, and a Savior who looks down at his killers and says, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they’re doing.” Wow! In the midst of betrayal, Jesus summons enough grace to forgive.

This world would be such a different place if we could be that forgiving and patient. Jesus gave up his rights and put the rights of others before his own. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus let go of his will and said that God’s will was more important. This Holy Week, the same challenge is ours. Can we put aside the disappointment that fickle people offer and lay claim to God’s approval? Is it enough for us to be loved by God even when it makes us unpopular with people? Can we do the right thing regardless of public opinion? I pray so.